I adore Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It defined the Metroidvania genre, and no other Castlevania game has ever topped its enormous scope. And yet, when people ask me for my favorite game in the series, I don’t point to a symphony — I point to an aria.
Each of the three Game Boy Advance Castlevania games were inspired by the exploration-first gameplay of Symphony of the Night, to varying degrees of success. Of those first two games, 2001’s Circle of the Moon handily bests 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, but neither could hold a whippable candle to the PlayStation inspiration that came before. They are enjoyable, even today, but they’re not games I often relish returning to. In hindsight, it turns out they were preambles to the big show.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, released in 2003, has seen a rebirth just this week as part of the Castlevania Advance Collection (which includes all three GBA games, alongside Dracula X, which we’ll just ignore for the sake of sanity, and because it’s not very good).
Aria of Sorrow is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the first Castlevania game to be set in the future. In the year 2035, a teenager in a sick white duster finds himself with supernatural powers. Does the game being in the future change much of anything? Not really. Dracula doesn’t employ robots or worry about his follower count, but the setting does allow for an occasional moment of futuristic hilarity to seep into an otherwise old-timey setting (read: laser gun).
As a possible reincarnation of Dracula, protagonist Soma Cruz can suck up the powers of the various enemies he fights. For example, killing a bone-throwing skeleton might grant him the power to throw bones himself. This so-called tactical soul system is a key component, as each of the game’s dozens of enemies carries some game-changing power to give Soma an edge. It’s here that Aria of Sorrow really begins to set itself apart from the pack, adding a feature that I sorely miss when I go back and play Symphony of the Night.
Symphony of the Night relies on a small grouping of useful weapon types and abilities. Alucard can spend 90% of that adventure kitted with varying longswords and a throwing ax, and be perfectly fine. Meanwhile, the tactical soul system in Aria of Sorrow encourages constant adjustments and experimentation. You might stumble upon a new enemy and wonder what their soul could possibly offer. Some may be simple stat boosts, while others provide new mobility enhancements. Sure, you could hit stuff with your sword ... or you could shoot goddamn lighting out of your hands. It’s entirely up to you. It offers far more player choice than Castlevania ever had before.
Hell, even if you just wanted to stick to weapons, Aria’s arsenal is far more diverse than Symphony of the Night’s, from axes to hammers to spears and actual guns. You can literally shoot Death in the face with a laser gun in this game.
Another edge that Aria of Sorrow offers over the other two GBA installments: It can actually stand toe to toe with the visuals of Symphony of the Night. While it may not have the same level of detail as the PlayStation game (the GBA was limited to 240x160 pixels, compared to the PlayStation’s 256x240, and lacked some of the fancy 3D effects), Aria squeezes every bit out of those pixels. Just as an example, I could watch Soma Cruz’s walking animation all day long and twice on Sunday. That coat swoop, that Saturday Night Fever swagger — what more could you want?
Is there a better 2D walking animation than Aria of Sorrow's strut? pic.twitter.com/y9ThTVPgm4— Russ Frushtick (@RussFrushtick) September 24, 2021
I could write for ages about the areas in which Aria of Sorrow either competes with or bests the efforts of Symphony of the Night. But I won’t keep you. If you’ve never played this game and you count yourself a fan of Metroidvanias, it’s absolutely worth considering grabbing the Castlevania Advance Collection, just for this game alone. (And hey, the other games in there are also pretty good ... because I’m still ignoring Dracula X.)
The collection includes some nifty features like sketches from the development team and the original box art from various regions. You can even play these games with quick saves and rewinds if you’re too intimidated to find yourself a save room. But mostly, it’s just an excuse for me to play Aria of Sorrow on a giant TV, and bask in the glow of that strut again.